Biodiversity for bees: what to grow in your garden

Biodiversity is the range of plant and animal life in a particular habitat.  Having a good range of plants and flowers is important for bees.  The Garden of eaden website tells us that there used to be "about 27 species of native bee within the UK, but with the introduction of intensive farming after the Second World War about 95% of natural flower-rich pastureland was lost".  The number of bumblebees in the UK has declined by around 70% since the 1970s and honey bees by up to 15% in the last two years, according to official UK Government figures.  It's generally accepted that a reduction of wildflowers is one of the main reasons for this decline.

The problem with many bees is that they are unable to store large amounts of honey, so when they can't find enough to eat and the honey in the nest runs out, the larvae starve to death.  The answer is to make sure that we use gardens and spare land to grow plants that bees like, and to make sure that there is a range of plants to create more diversity in the crops available.  

What plants do bees like?
Different species of bees have different feeding habits, often down to their size and the type of proboscis (tongue) they have. The problem with single crop farming is that it produces few flowers and only provides food for some species of bee and at a single point in the year.  If there are gaps in the food supply, colonies will collapse and die.  You can provide food for bees with a range of flowers and plants in our garden.  Any flowers will help, but if you can, make sure that you have a variety of food for them all through their feeding period, from late spring through to early autumn.

Popular bedding plants like begonias don't have the nectar to attract bees.  Traditional wildflowers and cottage garden plants are best.  Buzz about bees has an excellent list of natural wildflowers linked here. These include Poppy, Cowslip, Vetches, Dandelion, Dead-nettle, Foxglove, Yellow Rattle, Cat’s ear, Angelica, Red Bartsia, Ground Ivy, Woundwort and Betony.  Here are some other plants recommended by Gardener's World to attract more bees into your garden:

"In the spring grow flowers such as bluebell, crab apple, daffodil, flowering cherry, currant, forget-me-not, hawthorn, pussy willow, rhododendron, rosemary, viburnum and thrift. In the early-summer try campanula, comfrey, everlasting sweet pea , fennel, foxglove, geranium, snapdragon, and thyme.  In the late-summer have aster, buddleia, cornflower, dahlia, delphinium, fuchsia, globe thistle, heather, ivy, or lavender".

The Scottish National Heritage site also has good advice on what to grow to attract and feed bees in your garden, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a special factsheet linked here.   On Squidoo they give good advice on how to establish a range of plants and fruits for your bees.  The squidoo article also includes some great links to other resources so have a look yourself.

"Choose a variety of colours
Bees have good colour vision to help them find flowers and the nectar and pollen they offer. Colours that attract bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.

Plant flowers in clumps
Flowers clustered into clumps of the same species will attract more bees than individual plants scattered through the border. Where space allows, make the clumps four feet or more in diameter.

Include flowers of different shapes
There are thousands of different species of bees around the world. They are all different sizes and have different tongue lengths and will feed on different shaped flowers. Providing a variety of flower shapes means more bees can benefit".

Saving the bumblebee
If you have a farm or spare land you can also help by allowing one or two metres of wild growth around the border, as a habitat for wild plants, animals and insects to flourish.  The Bumblebee Conservation also a good source of information about what to do to reverse the decline in bee populations. 
There are also some beautiful films about bees on the BBC nature website.  To learn more about saving bees and creating habitats for them, here is a film made by Jamie-Lee Loughlin about saving the bumblebee, including news of The Bumblebee Conservation Trust. 

               Saving the Bumblebee from Jamie-Lee Loughlin on Vimeo.

The bee is essential for our own survival, so as Jamie-Lee says, "planting flowers in your garden for the bees may be the most important thing you ever do".